Make way for Lower East Side Pickle Day, seizing downtown Manhattan this Sunday. This annual 5-hour long extravaganza, held in LES since the late 1990s, “is a neighborhood-wide celebration of all things pickled,” where Orchard and Delancey “streets come alive with internationally renowned picklers, local vendors, live music, and activities…[and draw] enthusiasts from ’round the globe to remember their pickled roots!”
Although the festival is not explicitly Jewish, it is in fact set in the heart of pickle-making territory, the Lower East Side, where pickles became a staple of the Jewish immigrant’s diet. In July, Tablet columnist Marjorie Ingall described LES’ historic pickle scene thus:
…[T]here used to be at least 80 pickle vendors on the Lower East Side (Essex Street was nicknamed “Pickle Alley”). The name that holds the most romance to New Yorkers of a certain age is Guss. Izzy Guss, a Russian émigré, started off as a pushcart pickle vendor and then opened a shop on Hester Street in 1920. Guss’ Pickles remained in the neighborhood for generations—I remember heritage trips from Rhode Island with my synagogue and Jewish day school, when the invariable highlight was sampling Guss’ wares—but in the early 2000s, Guss’ became embroiled in legal battles with various parties laying claim to its name, recipes, and future. As the New York Post wrote in 2002, “This tale of betrayal, madness, jealousy, and rage makes King Lear sound like a child’s bedtime story.” (You can read the whole megillah here.) Today, the Guss store is gone. The Guss name is on pre-packaged pickles sold at Whole Foods (you can also buy online here), former Guss owner Patricia Fairhurst owns Clinton Hill Pickles in Brooklyn, and longtime Guss employee Alan Kaufman runs The Pickle Guys.
This year’s iteration notably includes Guss’ alongside the still-vibrant Pickle Guys. Also on the roster are Adamah (a community of Jewish farmers who process pickles using the vitamin-rich process of lacto-fermentation) and Rick’s Picks, whose featured product is a kosher organic “yummy dill pickle … that will make you plotz.” Also featured will be Messy Brine, founded by “3 financial guys” whose artisan handmade pickles partially benefit clean water projects. Another notable pickler to make an appearance this Sunday is Doctor Pickle, a 9/11 first responder who “pickle[s] with a purpose” by donating 5% of sales (from his certified kosher pickles) to the 911 WTC PTSD Foundation.
The festival, which was named among TimeOut’s best fall festivals in NYC, includes a Home Pickling Contest, judged this year by Sierra Tishgart (of New York magazine’s Grub Street), @foodbabyny (Instagram pseudonym for 2-year old Matthew Chau), Josh Russ Tupper (4th generation owner at Russ & Daughters), and Edible Manhattan’s Jesse Hirsch.
Although the pickles speak for themselves, Pickle Day is uniquely advertised by two skateboard-riding, pickle-loving “Fantasy Grandmas” (read: New York bubbes) who pay a visit to the Pickle Guys, “the oldest remaining pickle shop on the Lower East Side,” proclaiming allegiance to all “things that are old and briney.”
Related: For the Love of Pickles
Hannah Vaitsblit is an intern at Tablet.